Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God– Part Nineteen

More on track is the discussion of the praxis of the Lord’s Supper, and to a lesser degree Baptism. I agree that these symbolic rites encode a good deal of the Gospel message deliberately, and they reinforce the message. They do indeed help form world view and ethos. The trick is to neither say too much or too little about the ‘sacraments’ and Paul. On the one hand, Paul is prepared to say ‘I thank God I did not baptize more of you Corinthians’ (– thereby proving he was no modern Baptist— 1 Cor. 1). On the other hand in 1 Cor. 11 he seems to assume that whenever all the Corinthian Christians got together they should share the Lord’s Supper. The fact however that most of Paul’s letters say nothing about either of these symbolic practices should serve as a warning to us, not to make too much of them. I agree with Tom and the sociologists that the distinction between ritual (a one time, boundary defining practice like circumcision or baptism) and ceremony ( a repeated act which reinscribes core values like Passover or the Lord’s Supper) is helpful. Very helpful. It makes clear that baptism should not be mistaken for a confirmation ceremony, nor for that matter should it be seen as a mere infant dedication rite (see my books Troubled Waters, and Making a Meal of It). Yes, baptism and the Lord’s Supper are encoded narratives— but the question is— what stories do they tell? This is far more obvious in the case of the Lord’s Supper which includes reciting a narrative than it is with baptism.

I agree with Wright that the stories being told in the sacraments are Jewish to the core. They are not really drawing on the mystery religions (and here the critique of Schnelle and others by Wedderburn I think is fatal and final). And I quite agree with the central point Tom wants to make namely that baptism is about ‘us’ about who the community is, not chiefly about ‘me’ who I am (p. 421). This I think is correct. What is not really adequately discussed by Tom (anywhere to my knowledge) is the difference between what Paul says about water baptism itself in say 1 Cor. 1, and what he says about the work of the Spirit, in which he uses the language of water baptism, but in fact is not talking about the ritual! He is talking about the activity of the Holy Spirit himself— in 1 Cor. 12 (by one Spirit we were all baptized into…) or in Gal. 3.27 ‘for as many as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ’. This has in fact to be contrasted with what he says in Rom. 6 and in Col. about baptism being a burial with Christ, or in Colossians a circumcision. Tom is right that there is this parallel with the circumcision ritual in the Mosaic covenant, though baptism is a gender inclusive symbol. Circumcision is a cutting off ritual, a sign of the oath curse (‘if you don’t keep the commandments you will be cut off’). Similarly, baptism is a symbol of the burial of of the old self, the putting off of the flesh, in order that one might rise to newness of life. Baptism no more entails resurrection or rising to new life (for then the mystery religions case might have some teeth) than Jesus’ death in itself entails the resurrection. Baptism is about being cut off from the old world, the old self, and joining a new community– its an entrance ritual. At one juncture in the discussion (pp. 418-27) Tom points to 1 Cor. 10. Alas for that analogy Paul is using the analogy with the Exodus generation to warn the Corinthians that the sacraments do not work magically and do not serve as some sort of protection from future apostasy or harm. Anyway, there was no ‘baptism’ into Moses– the Israels crossed the Red Sea without getting wet. The point of the analogy is in regard to spiritual benefit, not in regard to ritual praxis, otherwise Christians would need a much drier ritual of baptism! But even if one allows that the story of the Exodus-Sinai adventures undergirds the story of baptism, then the point to be made is leaving Egypt (Exodus) as a symbol of baptism, does not entail entering the promised land, it’s the leaving behind of the old bondage, not the entering into the new promised land. Only two Israelites in the end did the latter. In other words: 1) the water ritual of baptism symbolizes the cutting off of the flesh, the shedding of the old self; 2) but it is only the actual work of the Spirit, which may or may not be coincident with water baptism which joins one to Christ. The symbol of the shedding of the old is one thing, the actual rising to life by means of the internal work of the Spirit, quite another.

And this brings us to the story of the Lord’s Supper and Passover. If the Lord’s Supper is a retelling, and updating of the story of Passover, in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus, it should have struck us as a little odd that baptism on the one hand is connected with the Exodus, but the Lord’s Supper with a pre-Exodus event– the Passover event, and then the meal which celebrated it. Isn’t this telling the story backwards? The answer it seems, is that Paul is not really interested in 1 Cor. 11 or elsewhere to simply pay it forward with the whole story of Israel, not in Rom. 1-11 (despite what Tom says in his Romans commentary) and not elsewhere. Paul simply selects portions of the OT to draw analogies with in some cases, and in other cases he does presuppose more of a narrative, but even then selectively (so e.g. when he thinks of Abraham he thinks primarily of the story of his trusting God, not of his later misadventures, and not even of his offering of his son Isaac, despite how resonant that tale is).

For Wright, one of the places one can most easily see Paul is no Stoic is in what he says about things like love and suffering. Not autarkeia, or self-sufficiency, but rather reliance on God, and even boasting in one’s weakenesses and the power of grace characterizes Paul. Wright realizes the power of inversion, of Paul’s inverted rhetoric in 2 Cor. 10-13 for example, but also in many other places. It is a paradoxical rhetoric to say the least, but no less powerful for its paradoxes (see p. 433– “like a good philosopher he could steal his opponents clothes using their rhetoric in order to say “Rhetoric? Who needs that?'”).

Wright takes a clear line on what Paul means when he talks about suffering with Christ or filling up the sufferings of Christ. “Certainly Paul has no thought here…that he was in some sense adding to the atoning significance of the Messiah’s death.” (p. 435). No, he is talking about standing in the line of fire, and taking the heat for his churches. Somehow, says Wright, this is all a part of Messiah’s sufferings, but then Wright turns around and says “Not at all, that Jesus himself continues in that sense to suffer: the Messiah being raised from the dead will never die again and death has no dominion over him.” Here Moltmann would ask… ‘then in what sense did he continue to suffer?’ What does Jesus on Damascus Road mean when he says from heaven to Paul ‘Why are you persecuting me?’ Not, notice, ‘my people’, but rather ‘me’. Is an attack on Christians quite literally an attack in some sense on Christ, or is this just a roundabout way of talking about Christ empathizing with us when we suffer? Tom is more sure about the fact that the church, by being the locus of where God’s living presence dwells is inherently a light to the nations by being itself, like a light bulb within its proper lamp can be seen from a distance.

There is a useful discussion by Wright of Paul’s use of the image language in pp. 440-45, and along the way he also is right to interact with Clifford Geertz to good effect– world view and ethos, or better said ontology and cosmology on the one hand and aesthetics and morality on the other hand, or even fact and value may be separated in discussion, but they never are in reality. One might think someone could construct a value system without metaphysics, but as Geertz admits, it never happens (p. 442).

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!